An excellent double-disc set presents all three of Britten’s string quartets and the Three Divertimenti alongside Purcell’s String Fantasias in Four Parts. The first disc opens with the Britten String Quartet No. 1 in D major; the Three Divertmenti are sandwiched between this and the Third String Quartet. One is immediately impressed by the playing: the Doric Quartet are very lyrical when necessary, capture a superb sense of the ethereal and gossamer as appropriate, but are likewise able to impart brilliantly the energy, drive and spikiness of the more frenetic and abrasive passages. The second disc appropriately pairs Purcell’s five Fantasias in Four Parts with Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 in C major, written in homage to Purcell. The Doric Quartet create a lovely resonance in the Purcell works, helped, no doubt, by the warm acoustic of Snape Maltings, where the recording was (also appropriately) made. There is some mildly intrusive player noise (sniffing) which is especially audible in Fantasia Z 737, but this is not enough to mar what is otherwise a superb set of works played with vibrancy and understanding.
I must confess to having been extremely surprised and disappointed by this disc, from the raw, passionate, unbridled – one could even say histrionic – opening of Elgar’s String Quartet through to the end of the Quintet. The playing is visceral and abrasive; there is no refinement or elegance here. That would be fine (albeit not to everyone’s taste) if the performances were spot on, but there are intonation problems that persist all through the disc. The first violin seems to be sharper than his companions, and the intonation is therefore not unified throughout the quartet. A possible contributing factor is that the first violinist appears to be vibrating on either side of the note whereas the others vibrate beneath the note. Further issues include the fact that the first violin’s playing style is more akin to that of a soloist than a chamber musician, whereas the others play together as colleagues. The attacks are not always together (especially noticeable in the third movement). The style of the whole group features a fair amount of portamento, which I personally like, but there is also an amount of rather intrusive sniffing at the very start of the Quartet. The piano quintet is, regrettably, not much better. I have no gripes whatsoever with pianist Martin Roscoe, whose playing is absolutely fine, but the intonation problems in the quartet persist, and the ensemble really isn’t wonderful. This is all quite hard to account for, given the experience and reputation of the Brodsky Quartet. Are they deliberately trying to capture a raw, edgy, unrefined performance? Or has the producer simply not noticed the intonation and ensemble issues? (In that case, why didn’t the artists catch these during play-back? Surely they were offered a chance to listen during the sessions?) Either way, it is something of a mystery, and a disappointment.
Folk Tales: British Cello and Piano Miniatures Gerald Peregrine (cello); Antony Ingham (piano) 8.574035
Here is a rather lovely programme of short works for cello and piano by English composers. The disc opens with Vaughan Williams’s Six Studies in English Folk Song, the most extensive work on the disc. Peregrine and Ingham capture a good sense of nostalgia and yearning from the outset. The piece is followed by the second of Four Short Pieces for violin and piano by Bridge (scored also for cello). Again, this is a charming work, and one wonders regretfully why the other three pieces were not included, especially since the disc is so short (coming in at under fifty-five minutes). Moeran’s Irish Lament and, later on the disc, his Prelude are full of wistfulness. It is in the world premiere recording of Elgar’s own transcription for cello of the Romance op. 62 that the one major shortcoming of this disc is revealed: the piano is much too far back in the balance, almost as if it were in a different room, so that the cello and piano lines do not meld nor work together as one. Such balance problems should not be an issue at Potton Hall, where this disc was recorded, so this must have been an issue with the engineering and production, unless this balance was dictated by the artists. The real issue with this balance problem in the Elgar is that most of his fingerprints are in the piano part and, with the piano sound so recessed, the work comes across as less Elgarian than it really is. One other aspect that slightly perturbed me was the shortness of the track breaks – one piece has scarcely died away before we are launched far too precipitately into the next. The balance problem persists throughout the three works by Delius –Caprice, Elegy and Romance —although I felt that the Bax Folk Tale was better able to stand up to the treatment. It is the only other reasonably substantial work on the disc, and the performance is pleasingly atmospheric, although I found the ornamentation in the cello part a little rushed; the work perhaps requires a little more space to breathe. Bridge’s Cradle Song ushers in a gently lilting rendition of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Greensleves, which brings the disc to a close. This really is a delightful collection, featuring works of beauty and charm, and it is a shame that the balance issue slightly mars what are otherwise good renditions of these pieces.
Herbert Howells Chamber Music Dante Quartet; Gould Piano Trio; David Adams (viola) 8.573913 HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
This is truly wonderful music, beautifully played. The disc opens with a deeply moving account of Howells’s String Quartet no. 3 “In Gloucestershire” from the Dante Quartet, with some lovely phrasing, while radiant playing in some of the more intensely nostalgic and powerful climaxes brings a lump to the throat. The Dante Quartet brings a nice lightness of touch to the following Lady Audrey’s Suite that works well, especially in the fourth and final movement The Old Shepherd’s Tale, which has an almost Irish feel in its lilting, dancing character. This is, amazingly enough, the world premiere recording of this charming work. The disc concludes with the Piano Quartet in A minor (famously dedicated “To the hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it”). This is played by the Gould Piano Trio, joined by violist David Adams, in a luminescent performance of this glorious work. Very highly recommended.
Elgar from America, Volume 1 NBC Sympony Orchestra; New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra; Toscanini; Barbirolli; Rodzinski ARIADNE 5005 HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The opening work on this disc is the most impressive, and by itself justifies its purchase. This is the Enigma Variations, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1949. The sound is very good, and the orchestra handles the work excellently, with some impressive playing. Toscanini’s conducting is pleasingly sympathetic, taking Nimrod at a relatively swift speed which sounds to me either pretty much the same as, or perhaps slightly faster than, Elgar’s own tempo as conductor of this work – there is no sentimental wallowing here. Excellent.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto from Carnegie Hall in 1940 follows, with John Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Gregor Piatigorsky as the soloist. There is a surprising lack of portamento from Piatigorsky, in a clean and again unsentimental performance. It is also fairly fast, with a good amount of drive and propulsion –another solid rendition, albeit with a fair amount of hiss in the sound. The final work is more marred by poor quality sound than either of the others (despite having been recorded in 1943, three years later than the Cello Concerto). This is Falstaff, here conducted by Artur Rodzinski, again with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. The sound is a lot muddier, quite indistinct in places, and the orchestra occasionally sounds like a fairground organ! Once again, the work is taken at quite a clip, but the orchestra proves itself perfectly capable of dealing with the speed. I must admit, however, to finding the sound too much of a barrier to full enjoyment of this important Elgarian work.--Em Marshall-Luck